@Dallas_TNT [SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead if you have not watched this week’s penultimate episode of Dallas]
Much of the buzz about the first season of TNT’s Dallas has been about having the iconic Ewing family back on the air as well as their portrayers Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. However, the show has also shed a spotlight on actors who are not as familiar (but surely are now) like Josh Henderson (John Ross) and Jesse Metcalfe (Christopher).
Impossible to notice on the Dallas landscape, however, is the acting prowess of Brenda Strong. While Strong could’ve easily been relegated to TV lore for her long-running role as Mary Alice on Desperate Housewives (she just picked up her 2nd Emmy nomination for her portrayal) or bra-less heiress Sue Ellen Mischke on Seinfeld, the versatile actress has shown during the first season of Dallas that she’s got much more to show us and has become one of the most compelling players on the compelling series.
The following is the first part of my recent chat with Strong where she talks about her portrayal of Ann Ryland Ewing and also shares working with Larry Hagman, who she shared a terrific scene in this week’s episode.
Next week, in the second part which will be posted immediately after the season finale airs, she’ll share Ann’s part in that episode, what she knows about the second season of Dallas and how she’s dealing with the fact that her real-life son (Zak Henri) is now a working actor (he’s on Bunheads!).
Jim Halterman: First of all, Emmy…congratulations.
Brenda Strong: Thank you. Thank you. That’s a treat.
JH: You’ve been through this before. Is it different every time you get a nomination or is it just as exciting and surreal?
BS: It’s just as exciting and surreal. It’s like winning the lottery. You go, ‘Oh, Wow.’ There’s just this excitement that comes with it. There’s this incredible feeling of acknowledgment. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by the fans who love the show…Mary Alice is kind of this silent, well, not silent, but invisible in some respects [and] to have it be honored toward the end makes it so much more important, I guess, really. It feels like it’s really kind of a career acknowledgment.
BS: I get so stressed about that, to be honest with you. I have no idea what I’m going to wear. I feel like there are people who know better than I. So what I do is, I basically show up and say, ‘Put clothes on me’ because I can’t be trusted. I’ll go to department stores and buy things, and come home and go, ‘who possessed me while I did that because that just does not look good on me.’
So it’s really good for me to be able to have somebody else go, “Yes, you should wear this.” But most importantly, it’s how I feel. Last year in my Emmy dress, I was so comfortable so I’m hoping for that same kind of level of comfort because I just felt really comfortable. That’s what I want. Somebody else can decide how good it looks. I want to be comfortable.
JH: You’ve had some great scenes with Linda Gray recently where Sue Ellen talks about crossing moral lines, which I thought was really interesting. One, I think it was a great scene for the two women, but also your character just seemed to have such a moral ground. However, it seems like there’s a lot of things going on with Ann that could make her do some things that she’d cross that moral line, right?
BS: I think that’s what’s beautiful in that friendship. There’s a sense of not saying what’s underneath. And there’s a confessional aspect to it that only another woman who has been a mother could relate to…the lengths that you’re willing to go to for your child. I think that’s very telling, because the audience doesn’t really know that Ann’s a mother. They get the clue with the burning of the photographs. Have you seen that yet?
BS: So you know that there’s some child that I’m connected to. They don’t know if it’s mine. But there’s something going on that I’m not talking about. I think what’s so great is having the weight of that. And I think sometimes what makes really great scenes are not just what’s being said but what’s not being said. I think Linda and I have such an interesting relationship because first of all, off-screen I adore her. I think she’s an extraordinary human being.
And on-screen there is this bond and friendship and support but there’s also this cautionary carefulness because Ann knows that at a turn of an event that [Sue Ellen] could turn against Bobby and Christopher in order to protect John Ross. And he is in the other camp. So I’m very aware that as much as I love this woman, support this woman, want to help her…I’m also aware that she’s in the enemy camp. So it’s such a very fragile friendship. It’s a very tenuous thing.
JH: Is it just good writing or is it the fact that Cynthia Cidre, who’s a woman, is in charge of the show? The fact that she didn’t right off the bat say, ‘Oh, let’s make Ann and Sue Ellen the Krystle and Alexis [from Dynasty] of the show,’ and you two could just be butting heads.
BS: I agree. Absolutely. Which makes it, again, more complex and conflicted. I think that’s just good writing. I think it does help that Cynthia is a woman, because she understands the complexity of being a woman and your loyalties and your relationships. I think that adds a certain depth to the women that are on this show. I think all of the women on the show are written not for face value. Every woman has a strength, and every woman has a weakness, and they play against each other really beautifully.
Ann can come off looking very, very strong. But as you saw when the locket came to her doorstep, it unraveled her very quickly. So that strength comes at the cost of the vulnerability that it’s guarding. I used to hear the phrase, ‘The bigger the front, the bigger the back.’ So as strong as Ann is on the surface, as powerful, and in command and control, and compassionate as she is…there’s a back side to that, and there’s a reason she’s that way. It’s just great to be able to play those antitheses within the character.The Dallas cast (l-r) Jordana Brewster, Josh Henderson, Linda Gray, Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Brenda Strong, Jesse Metcalfe, Julie Gonzalo (photo: Martin Schoeller)
JH: I’m curious with actors because I love a good crying scene. When Ann does get the locket…it’s such a great scene. Are you naturally a good crier or is it something you really have to work up to?
BS: Oh, I’m a terrible crier. I’m a terrible crier. I remember early on in my career when I first started doing television and film I thought, ‘how do these actors do it?’ Because onstage, no problem crying because you’ve got an entire performance leading you up to that moment and you’re there. It’s effortless, it just opens up and you’re there. And then I started doing TV and film…I was, ‘oh, my God, I’ve got to manufacture this, not only once but multiple times, and out of nowhere.’
You could be doing a totally unrelated scene right before you do that one that doesn’t prepare you at all. So that’s when I, in my early 20s, went back and started studying a little bit more in depth with different techniques. But I still am not the actress that can practically have no expression on her face and have tears fall out of her eyes. I’m an actress that screws up her face. She looks like she’s been beat up a million times. I’m red. I’m not a pretty crier.
I’m really jealous of those actresses that just can look like they’re not doing anything and a tear falls…one single tear…that’s just not fair. But I have to say that was a particularly difficult scene, because it was wrenching crying. It was grief crying. It was one of those that come from such a deep place that it was…my knees were pretty weak after that scene. And yet I love going there. That’s why we do it.
JH: In [tonight’s] episode, Ann basically gets to throw JR out of the house, which was so great to watch. How is it working with Larry in a scene like that and all this season?
BS: I love him. He is such a pro. He always adds so much to the scene. The tag line that he says as he’s walking away from me wasn’t in the script. He knows his character so well that you know you’re standing with history when you work with him. I love going toe to toe with him. I hope there’s a lot more. He and I actually really enjoy working together. One of his favorite lines was the one that he said when I turned the corner with the gun. He says, ‘Don’t think bullets have much effect on me, darling.’ I mean, he loves to be able to say those lines.
I think that gives him the right amount of, ‘I’m not a nasty old man fighting for oil.’ He loves beautiful women and going toe to toe with one instead of…in the past, either using them, or seducing them, or marrying them, or whatever it is…that he gets to have one be an adversary. I think it’s terrific. We get a lot of mileage out of it. And the actor knows that I love him, both the character and Larry, so it’s a lot of fun for us to play together. I love it when Ann gets fierce and protects her own. Yeah, I hope that there’s a lot more of that.
Read the second part of our interview next week post-finale episode where Brenda shares her thoughts on her scenes in the finale.
Dallas airs Wednesdays at 9pm on TNT.